inner peace as a contribution to human flourishing

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Juan Xi and Matthew T. Lee, Inner Peace as a Contribution to Human Flourishing In: Measuring Well- Being. Edited by: Matthew T. Lee, Laura D. Kubzansky, and Tyler J. VanderWeele, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/ oso/ 9780197512531.003.0016
15 Inner Peace as a Contribution
to Human Flourishing A New Scale Developed from Ancient Wisdom
Juan Xi and Matthew T. Lee
Although philosophers and theologians have emphasized the centrality of inner peace for the good life, this concept has not generally been in- cluded in research on human flourishing. We argue that inner peace contributes to a more complete form of flourishing for both religious and secular people. We then propose a new instrument, the Inner Peace Scale, to measure inner peace and we provide an initial psychometric evaluation of the instrument based on five empirical studies. We distinguish our scale from related measures, such as contentment, serenity, or tranquility. Our engagement with literature from the social sciences and the humanities, along with our research findings, suggests that inner peace is comprised of three dimensions: acceptance of loss; transcendence of hedonism and materialism; and inner balance and calmness. Greater attention to the di- mension of transcending hedonism and materialism may prove especially helpful in advancing the field, particularly in consumeristic societies.
The past two decades witnessed a rapid expansion of social scientific interest in understanding components, conditions, and pathways to human flour- ishing and well- being, with 14,000 publications mentioning one aspect— subjective well- being— in a single year (Diener et al., 2017). Yet despite the proliferation, progress seems to be limited by conceptual disagreement with regard to the meaning of flourishing. Does this refer to a life without disorders or disturbance, a life full of pleasure and happiness, or a life that
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is meaningful and serving a higher purpose but fraught with suffering? Or perhaps a life that is characterized by a profound peace which is beyond the dichotomies of pleasure or sorrow, passion or boredom, honor or dishonor, and living in opulence or poverty? In searching for the answer, many studies have investigated mental disorders, often viewed as the opposite of mental well- being. Studies on happiness and life satisfaction are also plentiful. Research interest on meaning in life and personal growth also well- estab- lished (Keyes, 2011; Ryff, 2014). But there has been little research attention paid to inner peace, a fundamentally balanced mental state that has been sought after throughout human history (Delle Fave et al., 2016). As a result, there are few discussions in the social science literature on the conceptual- ization and measurement of inner peace (Kjell, Daukantaite, Hefferon, & Sikstrom, 2016). The purpose of this chapter is to propose a new instrument, the Inner Peace Scale, to measure inner peace and provide an initial psycho- metric evaluation of the instrument.
But what is inner peace? There is a metaphor that has often been used to describe deep inner peace: the inner world of the mind is like a calm, quiet, and clear lake (Philippe, 2002, p. 5). It is a quiet that does not imply event- less or emptiness of inner experiences. But it does imply a different mode of inner experience which is always clear, gentle, and grounded no matter the nature of the outer events it is associated with. Just as a quiet lake clearly mirrors clouds, birds, and other happenings passing over it, people with deep inner peace experience their life happenings with great clarity. But just as a perfectly calm lake becomes disturbed during storms, so, too, is the experi- ence of inner peace often transitory. Craving for what one does not have and worrying about losing what one does have can easily disrupt inner balance. However, unlike a natural lake, the calmness of which is not under its own control, people can cultivate and develop their inner peace by learning to experience life circumstances with healthy acceptance and avoid automatic (or “mindless”) grasping. Drawing on cross- cultural insights from philos- ophy, theology, and the social sciences, we define inner peace as a calm and balanced mental state and disposition, one characterized by an attitude of healthy acceptance and an absence of unhealthy grasping.
The state of inner peace may be present in all life circumstances, including challenging or disturbing situations. Our definition is comprised of three distinct dimensions: acceptance of loss, transcendence of hedonism and mate- rialism, and inner balance and calmness. A skillful ability to accept the inev- itable losses that are an inherent part of the human condition, along with an
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avoidance of undue fixation on transitory pleasures and things, fosters a calm and balanced mind. But the latter should not be seen only as an “outcome” because mental balance may also increase the ability to both accept and tran- scend. All three dimensions are likely related in a dynamic way. It might be helpful to understand the more general outcome of the three dimensions of inner peace in terms of the metaphor of habitually keeping one’s “heart free of hatred” while accepting life as it is but without becoming complacent about wrongness or injustice (Baldwin, quoted in Hernandez, 2019). Indeed, empirical research reveals that a harmonious approach to life does not nec- essarily involve conflict avoidance or deflation of self, but in fact is associated with increased personal growth and a strong sense of purpose in a manner that integrates independent and interdependent conceptions of self (Kjell et al., 2016; see also Vallerand, 2008 on harmonious as opposed to obsessive passions). Such self- integration is helpful for working to transform conflict with more self- awareness and interpersonal skill.
A peaceful mental condition can be transitory, but it can also be developed into a stable mental disposition. It requires effort and understanding to de- velop and maintain this mental condition. As such, it can also be considered a mental process. By framing inner peace as a verb and a noun, we mean to suggest that it is possible to engage in accepting, transcending, and bal- ancing practices; it is also possible to attain these states to a greater or lesser degree. However, measuring inner peace as a transitory mental state, a dy- namic process, or a stable mental disposition would require different con- siderations and different instruments. The new measure introduced in this chapter focuses on inner peace as a relatively stable mental trait— a disposi- tion or habit of mind that can be cultivated and is likely to vary over time— as a first step toward developing measures of mental states and processes. The development of a measure of inner peace as a trait might be especially im- portant if, as some wisdom literature seems to indicate, the flourishing life is built on stable mental condition that is cultivated over a lifetime of phil- osophic, humanistic, or spiritual practice (Aurelius, 180/ 2006; Fleischman, 2004; Philippe, 2002). It is also plausible to hypothesize that those who have developed the stable disposition of inner peace will be more likely than others to become effective peace- builders in the world. We also expect that a trait- based measure of inner peace will show stronger relationships to peace- building and flourishing than a more transitory state- based measure.
The three dimensions (acceptance, transcendence, calmness) in our con- ceptualization may not represent an exhaustive list of all of the possible
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elements that characterize inner peace. For example, an ability to perceive present reality in terms of the long range, the eternal, or the “big picture” might also be a dimension of inner peace. But we suggest that our three dimensions do address fundamental aspects of the human condition that tend to characterize inner peace and that they are grounded in rich philo- sophic and theological traditions, both East and West. They are applicable to theistic and non- theistic religious orientations as well as secular ones. As a result, this new measure may be useful across a broad range of cul- tural contexts. It could also inspire future measurement development and refinement.
Inner Peace as a Cultural Universal
Inner peace has been known by many names across virtually all cultures, both as a desirable end state of being and as a virtuous disposition worthy of life- long cultivation through specific practices. It has been called the virtue of good temper by Aristotle (a disposition aimed at the balance point between excessive anger and indifference) and the highly sought state of mind known to ancient Greeks as apatheia (literally, “without passion” or “without suf- fering,” but not indifferent). This Greek term is given somewhat different meanings by Orthodox Christians and Stoic philosophers, but the under- lying experience seems to have analogs in other traditions, including one of the four “sublime” meditative states (upekkh) mentioned in the Pali Canon of Buddhism (or upek in Sanskrit, both generally rendered as equanimity in English). Similarly, Judaism posits menuchat hanefesh (peace of mind, resting of the soul) as an important foundation for moral and spiritual de- velopment. Hindus associate inner peace with transcending the illusory world of appearances in order to access Brahman: absolute reality beyond the distractions of ego. In Christianity, peace, as one of the nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), has been conceived as a necessary virtue developed through contemplation in order to reach union with divine love, as in the Ladder of Divine Ascent described by St. John Climacus in the seventh cen- tury. Cultivating a peaceful disposition, or alternatively receiving a gift of di- vine grace, might lead to an overall state of being that St. Paul described as the “peace of God” which “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). A sense of inner peace is captured by his celebrated words, “Love is patient, love is kind .  .  .  it is not self- seeking  .  .  .  it keeps no record of wrongs” (1
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Corinthians 13:4– 5), and also by his exalted way of engaging with life: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).
Inner peace has been understood as making important contributions to human flourishing in both religious and secular settings. In The Mountain of Silence, a study of Greek Orthodox Christianity as practiced by the contem- porary monks who reside the isolated monasteries of Mount Athos, Kyriacos Markides (2002, p. 81) explains the theological significance of contemplative practices that cultivate inner peace.
According to Athonite spiritual tradition, when a human being eradicates personal desires completely and reaches the state of apathia [liberation from egotistical passions], they become a “vessel of the Holy Spirit.” Then whatever that person wishes is given because it is what God actually wishes. The consciousness of the saint is fully attuned with the spirit of God.
Despite their vastly different theologies, there is a strong resonance be- tween this conception of the life of the Christian saint and the pious obedi- ence to “the providential order of the Stoic cosmos” (Kapstein, 2013, p. 110) counseled in ancient Greece, as well as the “secular spirituality” (Lee, 2015, p. 275) evident in the contemporary mindfulness meditation movement and in 12- Step therapeutic groups. These paths all involve overcoming instinc- tual, hedonistic desires and developing a capacity to accept with equanimity the one’s role as a servant of the transcendent, however that is defined. For example, a chapter on “Equanimity” in a nineteenth- century guidebook subtitled Means of Moral Discipline to the Christian warns against the dangers of “agitation” caused by “every trivial circumstance of life” to the “humbled heart,” whose response to God should always be: “Thy will be done” (Seeley & Burnside, 1838, p. 53).
The 12 steps, originally pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and now applied to many forms of addiction, cultivate a deep humility and a sense of spiritual reliance on a higher power rather than an overarching attitude of defiance (Lee et al., 2017). Such reliance reflects the notion of becoming a “vessel of the Holy Spirit” that animated the founders of AA. But they sought to make this process of connecting to a higher power and thus becoming more peaceful and giving available to the religious and non- religious alike. According to AA, defiance is “the outstanding characteristic of many an al- coholic” (Alcoholics Anonymous [AA], 1953, p. 31), because alcoholics tend
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to exhibit a “baseline subjective sense of restlessness, irritability, and dis- content” (Sussman, 2010, p. 28)— the opposite of inner peace. The AA “Big Book” frames this lack of peace in terms of egocentrism: “Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us” (AA, 2001, p. 62). Such a state is not limited to those addicted to substances, as the downward trajectory in well- being in the United States in recent years may be partly a function of “a mass- addiction society” that includes many be- havioral addictions (Sachs, 2019, p. 124; Sussman, Lisha, & Griffiths, 2011). For 12- step groups, the path to recovery and well- being involves reliance on a higher power of one’s own understanding, whether that might be a the- istic conception of God or the non- theistic good orderly discipline (G.O.D.) of the 12 steps. AA would generally concur with Bateson (1971, p. 3) that a “spiritual experience” involves “the myth of self- power” being “broken by the demonstration of a greater power” and, therefore, that a sense of flourishing or deprivation may follow depending on the degree to which the disposi- tion of inner peace is present during such experiences or is fostered by them. The decisive shift is from a self- centered, aggressive opposition to the world toward a “complementarity” (Bateson, 1971, p. 16) or “ontological intercon- nectedness” (Delle Fave et al., 2016, p. 1; Kjell et al., 2016) that manifests in benevolent service to others (Lee et al., 2017; Lee, Poloma, & Post, 2013).
This spirit of complementarity with the world— whether arrived at through religious or secular means— might be a bedrock foundation for flourishing that could help overcome the myriad conceptualizations and sometimes contradictory findings that seem to indicate a high level of dis- organization in the field. After all, grounding complete well- being— also la- beled flourishing, which includes physical health and social relationships (VanderWeele, 2017)— in hedonistic factors such as the balance of posi- tive and negative affect has proved challenging (King, 2001). Some cultural traditions normalize negative affect while others do not (Myers & Diener, 1995), and well- established social scientific traditions eschew hedonistic markers of well- being (Schneider, 2011). There is much more to flourishing than positive affect, and some are pushing back against what they describe as the “tyranny of the positive attitude” (McDonald & O’Callaghan, 2008, p. 128), despite the demonstrated value of such attitudes. And although often overlapping, the meaningful life is not always a happy one (Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker, & Garbinsky, 2013; King, 2001; Lee et al., 2013).
By including transcendence of hedonism and materialism, a common religious and philosophic theme, our conception of inner peace provides a
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different approach to well- being which may serve as an antidote to domi- nant pleasure- seeking cultural trends. Some of the markers of flourishing could serve as psychological defense mechanisms and “adaptive preferences” (Elster, 1983/ 2016), thus enabling acceptance of degrading conditions of various kinds. This includes the positive affect that some experience when viewing violent media, as well as the acceptance of inequities that increase mortality in some groups while providing others with a comfortable life of privilege. Such harmful effects are fundamentally inconsistent with inner peace because this is based on the thoughtful understanding of difficult life situations rather than automatic reactions of fear or avoidance. Existentialist philosophy and depth psychology have both explored the self- alienation that results from the conditioned acceptance of adaptive preferences and their attendant psychological defense mechanisms. Although it may be “a source of never- ending astonishment” to witness “how comparatively well a person can function with the core of himself not participating” (Horney, 1950, p. 161), this would hardly be a model of the flourishing life. In sum, our review of the world’s great wisdom traditions and social science research suggests that attainment of inner peace may be a cultural universal that could provide a deeper principle to guide the development of the science of flour- ishing. However, inner peace is not generally included in social scientific studies on the topic, perhaps because a suitable measure has not yet been developed.
Inner Peace and Well- Being in Social Science Research
Although inner peace has historically been considered an important indi- cator of well- being in both Western and Eastern cultures, it is rarely men- tioned in modern social sciences. For example, psychological and mental health research have long focused on negative emotions and mental disorders (Fredrickson, 1998). This is to some degree due to the substantial array of problems imposed by such emotions and disorders on individuals and for society. However, the marginalization of positive mental experiences in theoretical development and empirical studies has been challenged by researchers arguing that the eradication of symptoms does not automatically lead to mental health and well- being (Keyes, 2005; Payton, 2009). Being well is more than just being free from problems. And people grow from dealing with their problems and achieve higher levels of well- being (Frankl, 1963;
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Ryff, 2014). Indeed, the cultivation of positive mental functioning can be used as treatments of or prevention for mental health disorders and emo- tion problems. This has been evident in the success of the 12- step therapeutic approaches for different types of addictive behaviors and mindfulness- based interventions for a variety of mental disorders.
As researchers turn their attention toward the positive side of human experiences, a major focus has been on pursuing happiness and other high- arousal positive emotions such as joy and amusement. Hedonic happiness, defined as maximizing the pleasure in life, has become “the mascot for most of what is good and meaningful in life” (Cordaro, Glass, & Anderson, 2016, p. 221). The neglect of theoretical concepts describing human experience deeper than “feeling good” has been criticized as a “narrow band” investi- gation of well- being and flourishing (Schneider, 2011, p.  32). Moreover, researchers argue that the striving for happiness can be harmful because if well- being is reducible to feeling good, “drug abusers would be the happiest people on the planet” (Hayes, 2008, p. ix). Challenging the focus on pleasure- seeking hedonism, a purpose/ growth- seeking eudaimonism has inspired further theory building and measurement developing of well- being. Drawn from Greek philosophy and multiple Western psychological traditions, Ryff ’s well- known psychological well- being model considers six dimensions of well- being: purpose in life, personal growth, environmental mastery, pos- itive relationship, autonomy, and self- acceptance. However, inner peace was not a part of this influential conceptualization and operationalization of psy- chological well- being. Other frameworks of flourishing also omit a robust measure of this aspect (Delle Fave et al., 2016; Hone, Jarden, Schofield, & Duncan, 2014).
Very recently, research on low- arousal positive mental states which are similar to inner peace, such as contentment, tranquility, harmony, and se- renity, started to emerge but in a very limited number and often with incon- sistent conceptualization (Berenbaum et al., 2018; Cordaro et al., 2016; Kjell et al., 2016). There are also emerging discussions recently in the psycholog- ical literature on interesting new concepts such as “innate mental health” (Kelly, Pransky, & Lambert, 2015, p. 269), where the mind is at its natural healthy state without the contamination of egoistic feelings or thoughts, a state that can be considered to some degree similar to inner peace. However, inner peace,…